Fashion x Corruption
In 2013 over 1,100 fashion workers were killed as the building they were forced to stay in despite visible cracks in the foundation collapsed with the workers inside.
We’re not writing this for shock value, we’re writing about it because it highlights one of the biggest issues the industry must face: corruption, and with it, the limits of a tool that is widely used by the industry—auditing.
Sounds technical, so let’s peel back the layers. The brands that found their tags hidden in the rubble of Rana Plaza plead that they audit all of their facilities and that the manufacturers that they had partnered with had subcontracted to Rana Plaza without their authorization.
Apparel auditing is a $2 billion business. Auditors are often outside companies that get paid by brands or the agent working with a brand to check that a factory complies with social, environmental, and safety standards.
With almost every factory crisis that comes to light, this seems to be the classic response. In short: “It’s not our fault, it’s the manufacturer’s fault for subcontracting without our authorization.” But in the fast fashion production capital, Bangladesh, as many as half of the factories are subcontractors. When subcontracting is not the exception, but the norm, we have to reconsider that response.
What seems to be underneath this continuous losing game of cat and mouse is an ask that is impossible to fulfill, brands want dirt cheap prices and high standards. So brands hire auditors who visit factories periodically for safety and environmental hazards, meanwhile another factory, referred to as a shadow factory, fulfills part or all of the party.
What Can be Done - Moving from Hunters to Farmers
While auditing is a very important tool, we conclude from our review of the facts that more must be done to ensure safe working conditions and fair labor standards. What exactly, you ask? If we want to get serious about conditions in factories we have to first begin by viewing our suppliers as partners. It’s what our friends Toyota, in the car industry refer to as cultivation through farming instead of hunting for new deals, or cheaper areas of production.
Instead of always looking to exploit cheaper labor and jumping from region to region, brands can partner with their existing suppliers and understand the costs involved in their production. By partnering in the long term these fashion companies can help build efficiencies and innovation, and they can even improve auditing by coordinating with other brands that use a facility to avoid a common problem in the industry, auditing fatigue.
Beyond the checklist auditing, brands can ensure safety by getting a simple understanding of the capacity of a manufacturing facility. If an order is far beyond the capacity (based on number of sewing machines in a facility, for example), of a manufacturing partner then it’s pretty clear that the rest of the manufacturing will have to happen in an unauthorized shadow factory.
Brands can also empower the workers of their supplier factories located in high risk regions with tools to anonymously report abuses, such as the tool being developed called Labor Link.
Ultimately, we as consumers have to accept that clothes come at a cost and brands have to come to terms with the fact that these problems will persist if they just look at pricing and don’t work to partner and understand their suppliers.